AUGUSTA, Maine — U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, the Democratic candidate for governor, said Thursday that, if elected, he will create a state-level Office of Inspector General to fight “waste, fraud and abuse” in the Department of Health and Human Services.
Michaud’s announcement came in response to Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s focus on welfare reform. The Democrat argued that in LePage’s determination to stamp out all fraud by recipients of Maine’s public assistance programs, the governor points the finger in the wrong direction.
The system is flawed, but people who receive benefits aren’t the only ones who commit fraud and they should not be stigmatized because they ask for help, Michaud argued.
“People do not want people living off the system; they want people to work,” said Michaud. “But we also want to help people, our neighbors and friends who need that help. And what this governor has done is politicized the whole waste, fraud and abuse issue and demonized people who are getting assistance. That is wrong.”
Michaud mentioned millworkers from his home turf, the Millinocket area, who have lost their jobs in recent years.
“We’ve had people who have had to go into food pantries to get food. They were embarrassed. They were ashamed. They need that help,” said Michaud. “If [LePage] was serious about the abuse that is within this system, he would look at his own department.”
Republicans said Michaud’s plan is a thinly disguised attempt to further Democrats’ goal of “growing government.”
“The answer can’t be just to grow government,” said Senate Minority Leader Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport. “What he’s proposed is almost a co-commissioner. That’s not the answer. The answer is to hire competent people to run these departments.”
The Michaud campaign says the Office of the Inspector General would incorporate existing resources within DHHS, including auditors and investigators. Estimated new expenditures for the office would be approximately $582,000 a year.
While Michaud’s plan is designed to address recipient fraud, his major focus Thursday was on management within DHHS, which has been at the center of several controversies in recent months — from a failed MaineCare rides program to a document-shredding scandal in the Center for Disease Control to a loss of $20 million in federal funding at the state-run Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta.
The new office proposed by Michaud, which would operate independently from the department, would be a watchdog for everything from external fraud and internal misconduct to strengthened whistleblower protections to encourage state employees to speak up when they see problems. The office also would conduct continuing evaluations of programs within DHHS to ensure that they are being run efficiently and that recipients are being served effectively.
The inspector general would be appointed by the governor for a four-year term, which would be subject to confirmation by the Senate.
“We all know that there are some people abusing the system,” said Michaud. “We’ve all seen examples. … I’m as outraged as anyone about the waste, fraud and abuse that is stealing from other Maine families.”
The DHHS budget is approximately $1.1 billion annually in state dollars and $3.4 billion including federal matching funds. According to the department, there have been 1,900 reports of fraud and abuse in the past four months, compared with just 800 in all of 2010.
According to the attorney general’s office, restitution orders in fraud cases totaled $58,000 in 2009, $92,000 in 2010, $176,000 in 2011, $103,000 in 2012, and $209,000 in 2013.
Michaud argues that as the largest and most complex agency in state government, the Department of Health and Human Services is “vulnerable to mismanagement and abuse.”
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett — when asked who is to blame for the problems at DHHS — acknowledged a similar point. LePage was not at the State House on Thursday.
“You have the largest agency in state government that has a $3 billion budget,” said Bennett. “Issues will come up. What I think was very interesting today is that Mike Michaud has finally acknowledged that there is welfare abuse within our system.”
LePage campaign strategist Brent Littlefield said Michaud’s call for a state-level inspector general is ironic given that some are criticizing him for “ignoring” numerous U.S. Inspector General reports as ranking member of the U.S. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. A scandal in the VA led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki last week.
“This is not a political issue and it’s unfortunate that my two opponents have turned it into a political issue,” said Michaud of the VA situation. “We’re going to address the scandal and we’re doing it in a bipartisan manner.”
Michaud took aim at LePage for backing a $925,000 study on welfare reform by the Alexander Group, which has been plagued by allegations of plagiarism and which Democrats have labeled a waste of money on politically motivated reports designed to reinforce a key LePage campaign theme.
“Wasting nearly $1 million of taxpayers’ money is most certainly everyone’s business in the state of Maine,” said Michaud, referring to LePage’s argument earlier this week that Democratic legislative leaders had no right to interfere with his administration’s handling of the contract and problems with the Alexander Group.
LePage since has agreed to meet with legislative leaders.
Eliot Cutler, an independent who is running against Michaud and LePage in the 2014 election, said Michaud’s proposal “in no way” addresses fraud and abuse and that an inspector general would duplicate the mission of the existing Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, which conducts investigations at the direction of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee. OPEGA is working on an analysis of how DHHS deals with fraud and abuse.
“It would appear that the only thing a member of Congress or the Legislature knows how to do is create another agency,” said Cutler. “The most important thing is to make the programs work better and that is the function of a good manager.”
Asked by the BDN what welfare reforms he favors, if any, Michaud did not identify any and said he would be rolling out his proposals in the coming weeks.
“This is the first step to dealing with the issue of fraud and abuse,” Michaud said Thursday of his newest proposal.